Steyning Community Orchard: It’s Wassail time again...

Saturday, 18th January, 2020. Cricket Club. 18:00
January; cold, grey, wet. The warmth of Christmas has been packed away with the decorations in the loft. The first of the new year’s resolutions broken. January; with its stay indoors days, cold hands and runny nose days, bleak, dark, lights on at four o’clock days. The hardest month of winter lies waiting.

But something is stirring. The year has turned, the shortest day has passed, light is returning and deep beneath the ground new life is pushing its way through the cold, damp earth.

In the community orchard, the trees are holding their breath waiting for the days to lengthen and the air to warm, waiting to be awoken from their winter sleep.

And awakened they will be because once more Steyning Community Orchard has organised its annual Wassail and is inviting everyone, young and old to join in this celebration of the trees and the fruit that they bear. We have collected together the lights to decorate the oldest, most venerable apple tree in the orchard, we have prepared the Wassail bowl, made homemade soup and organised the music. We are ready to shake the trees from their slumber and make them ready to produce fruit for another year.

The word ‘Wassail’ from the Anglo-Saxon greeting ‘Waes hael’ means ‘be hale’; ‘be in good health’. For hundreds of years, people have gathered to go Orchard Wassailing on the eve of Twelfth Night, the 5th January (or in the old Julien calendar the 17th January) to rouse their winter fruit trees into life with chanting and singing; beating the trees with sticks to wake them, praising the trees for past harvests and exhorting them to ‘be hale’ for the coming season and harvest.

This ancient custom has recently had something of revival, especially in cider growing areas. It is fun, dark, noisy, and a little bit pagan and here in Steyning we have started our very own Wassail tradition.

So, keep Saturday the 18th of January free and as darkness falls and the High Street empties and light spills from the shop windows, dress up warm, grab a torch and make your way across the car park and along the darkened doorways in Charlton Street. Listen for the town clock striking the hour. Turn up towards the Memorial Field and gather outside the Cricket Club beneath the cold winter stars. Wait for the arrival of Mythago Morris; a group of Morris dancers with blackened faces and tatter jackets who lead us into the evening’s ceremony with dancing and Wassailing songs.

Once everyone is gathered, follow Mythago across the Memorial Playing Field to the Community Orchard waiting quietly in the darkness for your arrival. Join the circle around the chosen apple tree glowing softly with candles lit amongst its branches. Then help to wake the tree with chanting, music, dancing, stamping of feet, the banging of pans, and the blowing of whistles. Drive out any evil spirits dwelling within the tree and chase them away. And then make your offering to the tree. Dip a slice of toast in a specially prepared Wassail bowl filled with mead, crab apples, sugar, spices and egg and hang it in the branches of the tree, a token of thanks for the fruit it has borne the previous year and a gift to the tree spirit living within it.

Save your voice for the final roar of noise and then listen to the silence that falls amongst the trees as everyone drifts back to the Cricket club, leaving the orchard alone in the dark, beneath the shadow of the Downs under the night sky.

If you are not ready to return home and are hungry come into the Cricket Club and enjoy some homemade soup and rolls. Stay for an evening of music and good company and forget it’s bleak old January.

Wassail Saturday, 18th January, 2020. 18:00 for 18:30. Donations towards Wassailing.

Soup served with a roll in the cricket club. £3 adults, £1.50 children.
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